Research Watch

To have or not to have: Moderating role of protective adult relationships on substance use and delinquency

Year of Publication
Reviewed By
Sol Park & Biru Zhou

Brown, S. M., & Shillington, A. M. (2017). Childhood adversity and the risk of substance use and delinquency: the role of protective adult relationships. Child Abuse & Neglect, 63, 211-221.


There is an abundance of research that have investigated how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can negatively impact a child’s development, and behavioural outcomes, such as substance use and delinquency. The purpose of this study was to investigate if protective relationships with reliable adults, such as parents or other adult figures would influence the relationship between ACEs and delinquency and substance use amongst youth who were involved in child welfare.

The data collected from Wave 1 of the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-being (NSCAW II) was used for this study. This survey documented 5873 individuals 18 years or younger, who had undergone investigations of child maltreatment by agencies of child welfare in the US. The authors used data of 1054 youths aged between 11 and 17, and their caregivers and caseworkers from NSCAW II. The following variables were measured: 1) Adverse childhood experiences: ACE score from NSCAW II study; 2) Protective adult relationships: Resiliency scale from the Longitudinal Studies of Child Abuse and Neglect (LongSCAN); 3) Substance use: Youth Risk Behaviour Survey; 4) Delinquency: Denver Youth Survey.

The findings of this study supported previous research that children and youths with ACEs had a higher risk to experiencing substance use and delinquency. While the authors found that protective relationships with reliable adults per se did not influence substance use among youths, they did find that protective relationships moderated the relationship between ACEs and substance use, such that the negative impact of ACEs on substance use is significantly stronger for youth reported fewer reliable protective relationships. Even though protective adult relationship was also found to associate with lower likelihood of engaging in delinquent behaviours, protective adult relationships did not moderate the relationship between ACEs and delinquency. In other words, having some protective relationships might serve as a protective factor against substance use but not delinquent behaviours among youth involved in the welfare system.

Methodological Notes

The authors noted that there may be other confounding variables such as genetics or familial environments that could explain the study’s results. Many studies conclude that substance use is heritable, by linking genes to substance use. The study sample included primarily White/non-Hispanic youths (43%), followed by Black/non-Hispanic youths (20%). Minority of the youths that did not fall under the categories of White/non-Hispanic, Black/non-Hispanic, and Hispanic, were categorized under “other.” Thus, the results of the study cannot be generalized to all youths, especially those whose ethnicity is not classified as White/non-Hispanic. Furthermore, the internal consistency for the moderator (i.e., protective adult relationships; Cronbach’s alpha = .59) in this study is lower than what is generally deemed acceptable, which may also compromise the generalizability of the findings beyond this study.